Polysemy is the idea that things (words, phrases, images, signs) have many meanings. In The Rhetoric of the Image, Roland Barthes details three different types of meanings that can be garnered from images. The first type of message you can get from an image is the linguistic message – the caption or slogan in an advertisement, and the labels of the product advertised. The second type of message is the symbolic one (or the coded iconic image) – a tin of soup, for example, will invariably have lovely bright pictures of whole vegetables on the label, symbolising how ‘fresh’ and healthy it is. The third type of message is the non-symbolic one (or the non-coded iconic image) – the obvious message: you’re selling a tin of soup.
“All images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others.”
Here Barthes is saying that as soon as you see one meaning in an image, you ‘unlock’ many others – an image of a crying person might signify sadness, loss, physical pain, happiness. If you choose one (happiness) you close off the other possibilities but unlock new ones – happiness due to good news, finding something that was lost, ‘happy tears’ at a wedding, etc. Different people often see different meanings, due to differing backgrounds, life experiences, and cultures; adding text to the image fixes the meaning, anchoring the image within the context you choose for it.
The workshop we participated in last week introduced us to this concept, and this week we have performed a little experiment in order to help us understand this whole polysemy thing better. The experiment entailed us picking three random images (or rather, the randomiser at sxc.hu picking for us) and asking members of the public what information they got from the image, what (if anything) the images made them feel, and if they could think of a story that linked the images together. Our results were quite varied – all together we asked 9 people, and heard a number of different stories.
We chose one of the stories we’d gathered to work with further: the three images are part of an ad campaign to promote ecotourism and volunteering. Our next task was to add a fourth image to the set, to see if that would help people see our chosen story more clearly. We found this somewhat effective – the image of people digging, along with that of the women washing clothes in a stream, definitely gave people more of an idea of travelling, working hard, and helping or being charitable. However, there was still some variation in the stories we heard.
We then went back to our original three images, but added the word ‘volunteer’ into the mix. This very quickly led people to understand our story, and most of our participants got it straight away. One female participant said, “Well, this image says ‘volunteer’, so obviously she’s volunteering.” Which, I suppose, is exactly what you want to happen. You wouldn’t be very happy if you were trying to get people to volunteer in Peru but actually your advert inspired everyone to go and book a nice holiday in the south of France. From this result we can definitely see that text fixes a meaning to the images.
I find it really interesting how these randomly chosen images now have a sequence and a story behind them. Now all I can see when I look at them is this imaginary advert!
So what does all this tell us? As a designer, I think it all boils down to the context into which you place your designs. In textiles you have to take into consideration fabric choice, colour, print, stitch structure, construction, and most of all where your design will be seen. Fashion or interiors? If fashion, will your models be in a bright white studio (which might signify “artiness”, high fashion, unaffordable), or a more gritty “street” scene (which might signify wearable, real-life, accessible)? If interiors, what sort of lifestyle do you want to depict? Where do you want your designs to fit in?
Doing this experiment and thinking about Barthes’s explanation in terms more closely related to what I do day-to-day (we’re always being told to think of our designs “in context”) has definitely helped me to understand the concept of polysemy, and the experiment itself certainly made Barthes’s points clearer in my mind, as The Rhetoric of the Image isn’t the easiest read.
Advertising is serious business. You can’t just show a picture of your product, you have to sell the scene, the lifestyle. Use this deodorant and women will find you irresistible, use this perfume and men will think you’re sexy, feed your kids this juice and they’ll be healthy and happy. Product advertisement is often stuff you can tune out – it’s just the nonsense that pops up in between segments of Criminal Minds. Advertising for causes is a different story though, and is often quite provocative and challenging; check out this collection (from 2010) of extreme ads, notably those from Amnesty International, the RSPCA, RSF, and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. The workshop I took part in this week has worked to make me aware of a lot of advertising tricks – show a happy family to sell your soft drink (healthy, fun), show “the great outdoors” to sell your washing powder (fresh, clean, bright), et cetera.
During the workshop my team was given this image, and asked what we thought about it – what was the feel of the image, what does it portray, what’s the main theme of the image and what props does it use, what might it be advertising? (Okay, we weren’t asked the advertising question, but all of the images used in the workshop were advertisements (with any text and brand logos removed), some more obvious than others.)
What do you think? My quickly-scribbled notes for this image look like this (but in barely-legible handscribbles): sexy knitwear, Armani-ish?, intimate, loving, black & white – romantic, distinguished, elicit, clandestine (we thought these two might be having an extra-marital affair!), mysterious, black/white clothes, opposites attract, and sophisticated. One good key word for this image shouted out by another team was “luxury”.
It’s actually an advertisement for a mink coat. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to guess that, but it probably would have been a while. We were thinking something along the lines of perfumes and chocolates!
We were given the task of hitting the streets and asking Real People (not art/design students) for their thoughts on the picture. It was a bit of a scary thought, approaching people on the street, but I think Kristen, Stephanie, Sheila, and I took it in our strides. Luckily for the rest of us, Sheila had the confidence to do most of the actual people-approaching.
First we asked a porter in the Dundee University Dalhousie building (where the workshop had taken place – start with an easy one!), a 62 year old male, who straight away spotted that it was an ad for a fur coat, which led me to believe he’d done this before! He said that the ad was obviously about the lady, and the man seemed a bit pointless, really. The ad trying to sell “the finer things in life”, and “a man loves a lady who wears a fur coat.” Next we spoke to three male students in their late teens, who noted the feeling of closeness and intimacy in the picture, and they thought it might be advertising perfume or jewellery (the lady’s bracelets in the forefront). They didn’t seem especially surprised when we revealed the purpose of the ad, as they had expected it to be something somewhat luxurious or “high-end”, although I suppose we aren’t really exposed to advertising for furs nowadays. Lastly we spoke to a female student who I thought to be about 20. She thought the image was possibly for a fashion campaign, and noted that it was trying to show love and a caring attitude, like the man really cared for the lady and is “a really nice guy”. She also thought it seemed quite posed, or fake. When we revealed that it was a fur coat ad, she was quite happy to have guessed at fashion campaign.
This was quite a fun exercise in the end, and I wonder what other opinions we’d have gathered if we could have found more people willing to stand in the cold with us for a minute or two. I would have especially liked to hear more female opinions, to get a more balanced view. It seems that in general people are actually quite good at deciphering scenes and images, when we take a few seconds to analyse them. I guess that also means that advertisers have to be quite clever!
Having thought about it a bit, I think people probably would be more likely to buy washing powder with an image depicting freshness, outdoorsiness (totes a word), and “summer breezes”, rather than a picture of some clean clothes, which is quite funny really, since that’s what you’re going to get out of using washing powder. I’m looking forward to learning more about “what images mean” and doing this kind of exercise again to a higher degree in preparation for our next assignment.